The Book Pages: Zyzzyva’s Oscar Villalon wants you to join the party

Oscar Villalon and Laura Cogan. (Photo by Christopher Michel / Courtesy of Zyzzyva)

As our fragmented attention spans are bombarded by cannonades of content, why would you willingly choose to seek out a literary journal to read? Maybe you figure – if you ever thought about literary journals at all – these old-school aggregators just aren’t for you in these heady days of TikTok and ChatGPT.

Well, I’ll tell you, this week I talked to Oscar Villalon, the new editor of the San Francisco-based journal Zyzzyva, and his enthusiasm for the work they do is hard to resist. We were talking about this month’s publication of the journal’s 125th issue, his first since moving up to become its editor – only the third person to hold the position since the journal’s founding in 1985.

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Throughout our conversation, Villalon stressed that the goal of Zyzzyva’s small staff is to get great writing into the hands of people who want to read the very best stuff.

And one of those readers might be you.

“My idea when thinking about an issue of Zyzzyva is trying to recreate the feel in an issue that you would have when you go into a well-curated bookstore. That sense of possibility. Like, you just don’t know what’s going to be in there, but it’s going to be good and it’s going to be different,” says Villalon. “There’s something about it that makes you feel a little bit more alive.”

“I’m looking for stuff I want to read. First and foremost, I’m a reader, and I want to find stuff that’s going to be thrilling and exciting in some way,” he says.

Villalon wants to be clear: All readers are welcome.

“If you’re a reader, you’re already part of the community. Not only are you part of the community, you’re the most important part of the community.”

Zyzzyva issue 125 (Courtesy of Zyzzyva)
Zyzzyva issue 125 (Courtesy of Zyzzyva)

Founded in 1985 by Howard Junker to highlight West Coast writing, the nonprofit focuses on fiction, nonfiction, poetry, interviews and art. Villalon praises the journal’s departing editor Laura Cogan for her decade-plus tenure, noting the awards the journal earned in that time, which include the Council of Literary Magazine and Presses’ Firecracker Award in 2019 for Best Magazine and General Excellence, and a Whiting Literary Magazine Prize in 2022.

“In the last 12 years, when Laura took it over, the journal went to another level of excellence, frankly, that it just never had before,” he says.

Zyzzyva has published work from plenty of big-name names over the years, including Haruki Murakami, Ursula K. Le Guin, F.X. Toole, Wanda Coleman, Raymond Carver, Robert Creeley and M.F.K. Fisher among many others.

They also have sterling contemporary writers in each issue – some well-known, some less so. That’s the point, says Villalon.

“We’re egalitarian. We really are. I’m not looking to velvet rope anybody. You know, if you’re good, that’s all I care about,” he says. “To me, it’s very simple. If the writing is great and I think people are gonna enjoy it, fine.”

Villalon mentions that a number of writers featured in the journal come from Los Angeles and Southern California. It’s an area he knows well – and it’s where he and I first met back in the 1990s through mutual friends.

Born in West Covina, he grew up in La Puente and northern San Diego County (with a brief stint in northern Mexico in between). He graduated from USC and worked in journalism in Southern California before moving north to work at the San Francisco Chronicle, ultimately becoming its books editor. After taking a buyout, he worked at McSweeney’s and did some freelance writing before joining Zyzzyva more than a decade ago.

While the journal, which launched as a response to East Coast bias against West Coast writers, still focuses on California writers, Villalon said Cogan and he expanded its reach to include others from beyond the West.

“If other people want to be part of the party, let them come join our party. There’s plenty of room,” he says. “The world is a huge place.”

At some point reading this, you’ve probably wondered: OK, but what the hell does that name mean? I mean, I did. So I asked.

Villalon said it was the founder Junker’s idea.

“My understanding is basically Howard wanted to distinguish the journal,” he says. “So he found the last word in the English dictionary and it happened to be ‘zyzzyva,’ which is this tropical weevil. That was that. So then he could say, ‘Zyzzyva, the last word’ – and then, you know, parentheses, ‘in the English language.’”

After our conversation, I signed up for a subscription. But I also asked Villalon where people might find copies of the new issue to give it a look.

“The best way is – and this is going to make their world just in general better if they aren’t already doing it – find your local indie bookstore, because chances are they have Zyzzyva,” he says listing off some notable independent Southern California bookstores he’s familiar with. “Get it – and then look around.”

Oscar Villalon and Laura Cogan. (Photo by Christopher Michel / Courtesy of Zyzzyva)
Oscar Villalon and Laura Cogan. (Photo by Christopher Michel / Courtesy of Zyzzyva)

New book banning report

American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)
American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, Pool)

Book banning is on the rise, and it shows no signs of abating.

A Washington Post study published this week said that nearly half of all books challenged had LGBTQ themes. As well, more than a third of those challenged had a character of color or dealt with themes of racism.

The statistical rise in challenges has been extreme.

According to the Post report: “From the 2000s to the early 2010s, LGBTQ books were the targets of between less than 1 and 3 percent of book challenges filed in schools, according to ALA data. That number rose to 16 percent by 2018, 20 percent in 2020 and 45.5 percent in 2022, the most recent year for which data is available.”

The Washington Post study, which I’d urge anyone interested in the topic to read, looked at book bannings in more than 100 school districts and also found this bit of information:

“The majority of the 1000-plus book challenges analyzed by The Post were filed by just 11 people.”

Think about that for a moment: 1000 books were challenged in more than 100 school districts by just 11 people.

Also noteworthy? Of 499 people challenging books who gave information about their identity, only 2 were students.

Los Angeles poet Amanda Gorman’s “The Hill We Climb” – a poem read at the inauguration of President Biden – was challenged by a single Florida parent, which led to the poem being removed from an elementary school library. That same parent also challenged “The ABCs of Black History” and a biography of Black poet Langston Hughes, “Love to Langston.”

While objecting to Gorman’s poem, the parent listed “Oprah Winfrey” as the author. According to reporting by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the parent has published antisemitic material on social media, which the JTA said she admitted doing and apologized for. She also said she had not read all the books.

“They have to read for me because I’m not an expert,” she said to JTA. “I’m not a reader. I’m not a book person. I’m a mom involved in my children’s education.”

Gorman, an alum of LA’s WriteGirl program and first-ever Los Angeles Youth Poet Laureate, issued a statement citing the lawsuit against a Florida school district’s book bans filed by PEN America and Penguin Random House.

Gorman’s statement concludes: “Together, this is a hill we won’t just climb, but a hill we will conquer.”

For more information about book bans, go to the American Library Organization’s website.

Please feel free to email me at with the words “ERIK: BOOK PAGES” in the subject line and tell me about the books you’re reading and I may include it in an upcoming newsletter.

And if you enjoy this free newsletter, please consider sharing it with someone who likes books or getting a digital subscription to support local coverage.

Thanks, as always, for reading.

Kelly Link wants your ghost stories, people

Kelly Link is the author of
Kelly Link is the author of “White Cat, Black Dog.” (Photo credit: Sharona Jacobs Photography / Courtesy of Random House)

Kelly Link is the author of the collections “Magic for Beginners,” “Stranger Things Happen,” Pretty Monsters,” and “Get in Trouble,” the last of which was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, Link recently published her latest book, “White Cat, Black Dog.” Link, co-founder of indie publisher Small Beer Press and the owner of the bookstore Book Moon in Easthampton, Massachusetts, answered questions from Michael Schaub about her work via email.

Q: What are you reading now?

I just finished T. Kingfisher’s “A House With Good Bones,” which is a really delightful horror novel. I’ve been describing it as John Bellairs for adults. I also loved Victor LaValle’s “Lone Women.” I’m now reading Margaret Atwood’s collection “Old Babes in the Woods”, and Elizabeth McKenzie’s “The Dog of the North.” And one last one, which I wish everyone would read — Megan Giddings’ luminous, large-hearted novel about the persecution of witches in a slightly stranger version of contemporary America, “The Women Could Fly.” I also recently read and loved Elizabeth McCracken’s “The Hero of This Book” and Nathan Ballingrud’s “The Strange.”

Q: Do you remember the first book that made an impact on you?

Before I could read to myself (I was slow to learn), my mother read all of the Narnia books to me. At the same time, my father was reading me Tolkien. Finally they explained to me that if I would learn how to read, I could pick those two writers up anytime I wanted, and revisit those worlds. It was a persuasive argument.

Q: Is there a book you’re nervous to read?

I was nervous to read Sofia Samatar’s first nonfiction book, “The White Mosque,” because I love her work so much I couldn’t quite bear to settle down and sit with it. (A bit like having a crush on someone, but it’s a book.) I felt that way with Karen Joy Fowler’s novel “Booth,” too. Both books are extraordinary.

Q: Do you have any favorite book covers?

What a great question! Chip Kidd’s cover for Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” is one favorite. I love the cover of “Old Babes in the Wood,” and Anna and Elena Balbusso’s cover for Nicola Griffith’s “Hild”. And I do very much love Shelley Jackson’s covers for “Magic for Beginners” and “Stranger Things Happen.”

Q: Do you have a favorite book or books?

So many. I named a bunch of recent ones earlier, but Molly Gloss’s “The Hearts of Horses,” Peter Straub’s “Shadowlands,” Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite novels, Robert Aickman’s collections, the poetry of Morgan Parker and Natalie Diaz, and Jim Shepard’s “Phase Six.”

Q: Is there a person who made an impact on your reading life — a teacher, a parent, a librarian or someone else?

There was a chemistry teacher in high school, Mrs. Wyndam, who told me to track down Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels, and that was wonderful advice. And the librarians in my middle school, who recommended Ray Bradbury and Irving Wallace’s “The Agony and the Ecstasy.” My mom and I worked in a kid’s bookstore for many years for another mother and daughter, Mimi and Janis Levin, where our main responsibilities were to read the stock. I found a lot of new favorites working there, which I reread, and made a lot of new discoveries. It was a wonderful job. Working for them, and then for Vince McCaffrey at the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop in Boston, taught me a great deal about bookselling.

Q: If you could ask your readers something, what would it be?

What are you reading right now that you love? And do you know any true ghost stories?

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